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Handguns and Air Marshals

By Ethan Rider
November 15, 2003

Aviation writer and enthusiast Ethan Rider provides a well-researched and thoroughly-reviewed examination of the practicality of arming pilots or loading flights with tens of thousands of air marshals.

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Photo © Sunil Gupta


On September 11th 2001, four U.S. commercial flights were hijacked, three of which were destroyed in suicide missions. Because the hijackers were able to accomplish such a remarkable operation armed only with box cutters, it has become the objective of the United States to ensure an increased level of security on all domestic flights. The severity and tragic “success” of these terrorist conspiracies – which claimed over 3,000 lives – combined with the fear of another similar attack, has created a sense of urgency for increased airline security, including the use of lethal force (Emling, Gunts). Arming airline pilots with handguns has become the most popular concept for augmenting airline security, especially among the pilots themselves (“Battle Lines”). However, irrespective of its popularity, this option is excessive because it only considers an immediate solution. In the long term, the substantial reinforcement of cockpit doors and a mandate that they remain closed during flight, in conjunction with the presence of armed air marshals aboard every flight, should sufficiently meet the increased safety demands. Unfortunately, the implementation of these solutions will take many months, if not years, and they do not satisfy the demand for urgent action that the events of September 11th have created. Although pilots already bear the enormous responsibility of safely flying the airplane, assigning them the additional responsibility of carrying a lethal weapon and maintaining security is the only immediate, practical solution to secure aircraft which do not have a reinforced cockpit door and multiple air marshals aboard.

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Even after Sept. 11th, cockpit doors
are still open on some flights:
Photo © Konstantin von Wedelstaedt

Arming pilots with handguns has become a widely supported concept since September 11th. Not only has the public voiced strong support, but the majority of U.S. commercial pilots has also openly supported this proposal (“Battle Lines”). More than 20,000 pilots have signed a petition demanding the right to be armed, in response to the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) May 2002 decision that airline pilots cannot carry guns (Goo, “Administration”). This pro-gun group has gained the support of elected public officials, including senators, congressional representatives, and large representative organizations, such as the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Airline Pilot Security Alliance (APSA) (“Battle Lines”). This perspective is founded on the belief that guns in the cockpit would have prevented the September 11th hijackings. Although this might be true, it is not sufficient justification for the long term arming of pilots.

The primary responsibility of airline pilots is to safely operate, control, and land aircraft. A common, yet incorrect interpretation of this principle is that airline pilots are responsible for the safety of their cargo and crew. By properly operating the airplane, pilots are indirectly responsible for safety, but they are not necessarily responsible for law enforcement. Many pilots disagree. Airline captain Joe Gennaro declares, “Armed pilots are the first line of deterrence and the last line of defense [against terrorism]” (“Arm Us” 48). However, the armed pilot has not proven to be successful in the same way that other security measures have. Israel’s El Al Airline effectively responded to numerous hijackings in the late 1960s without arming its pilots. As aviation security expert Peter St. John observes, “the Israelis improved their security measures on all El Al aircraft, including locked, bullet-proofed doors and armed sky marshals. This led the PFLP [the group responsible for all previous terrorist action] to turn to other nations’ aircraft” (22). Consequently, instead of arming pilots, alternative security measures that have been proven to deter terrorists would more effectively address the immediate need to increase aviation safety in response to September 11th, and more directly address the long-term goal of preventing all domestic terrorist action. Furthermore, the pilot’s main responsibility, which is closely associated with passenger security, should be protected at all costs, and should not be augmented.

Many argue that an armed pilot would serve as a deterrent to a potential hijacker. In National Review Online, Robert Levy writes:
Imagine that you’re a terrorist selecting one of two airlines as your next victim. The first airline boasts in its ads, ‘Our Planes Are Gun-Free Zones.’ The second says that ‘One or More Employees Will Be Armed on Every Flight.’ Not much question which one you’d fly. Now picture yourself as a safety-conscious passenger. Still not much question, but the choice won’t be the same.
Nevertheless, the presence of a gun in the cockpit may compromise rather than enhance security. For the same reason that a gun-owning household is more likely to experience an accidental shooting, so may an otherwise secure aircraft experience the use of unnecessary force. Ironically, prior to 1987, pilots were permitted to arm themselves during flight. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) abolished that privilege after a passenger services supervisor, recently fired from his position with USAir, murdered a passenger and the two pilots, and brought down the airplane. All 43 persons aboard were killed (Nader 71-73). Even if pilots were able to use guns appropriately, the mere presence of a gun in the cockpit might still hinder security. As long as there is already a gun onboard, there remains hope for an unarmed terrorist. As Storomza Tsahi, director of security for the inimitably safe El-Al Airlines of Israel states, “If [pilots] have guns, then the hijackers know where they can get them” (Lehrer).

The presence of an air marshal team, acting as a trained and armed security force aboard all domestic flights, would eliminate the need for guns in the cockpit and provide the protection demanded by pilots and the public. The air marshal would be better qualified than the armed pilot in numerous ways. One aviation security expert asserts, “the air marshal program has created an elite group of highly-trained aviation security professionals who work in teams and in very close co-ordination with airlines and flight crews” (St. John 98). Security would not be an additional responsibility for the air marshal as it would be for an armed pilot; it would be the air marshal’s sole responsibility. Also, by relieving the pilot of security responsibilities, the pilot could remain in the secure cockpit behind an impenetrable door. Since the nature of hijackings is to control the aircraft, an impregnable cockpit door is an essential element of preventing terrorism. For this reason alone, pilots should not be armed and should never exit the cockpit.
The placement of a plain-clothed air marshal team aboard every flight gives this security measure the significant advantages of teamwork and surprise. By dressing as a regular passenger and not brandishing a weapon, an air marshal can anonymously accompany a regular flight. Conversely, an armed pilot is easily identifiable because he is always located in the cockpit and wears a uniform. An essential tactic of an air marshal team involves one member immediately reacting to all security concerns and a different member remaining incognito for as long as possible (Wald). This technique would prevent the air marshal team from susceptibility to decoy maneuvers and maintain secrecy and control, both of which are considerably advantageous over an armed pilot. As an American Airlines pilot explains, “When we have [a] … terrorist attack, one pilot flies the plane while the other … defends the cockpit” (Irvine B8). For this reason, the multiple air marshal strategy is a superior approach to a single armed pilot in a more serious terrorist situation involving multiple perpetrators. In order to counter multiple terrorists, armed pilots would have to choose between attempting to do so single-handedly, or going as a team and leaving the flight controls unattended. As Newsday asks, “If you were a terrorist, which would frighten you more: a pilot strapped in a forward-facing seat, … or a well-trained air marshal, popping up unexpectedly from behind you, pointing his weapon meaningfully at your head?” (“Air Guns” A18). Thus, an organized team of air marshals would be a more effective security measure than an armed pilot, not only in regard to the security of the aircraft, but also in regard to the intimidation of terrorists.

Whether it is the pilot or the air marshal that carries the gun, critics of guns as a security measure on airplanes will argue that guns should never be present onboard, because an airplane is too fragile a machine and in an extremely precarious environment. Ronald Hinderberger, safety director at Boeing, admits, “There is a remote possibility of causing a fire, explosion, engine failure, or loss of critical systems, given an unfortunate placement of shots and combination of conditions” (“Emotions”). As a precaution to those risks, many transportation officials have suggested stun guns, or Tasers, which use an electric shock, as an alternative to handguns. However, stun guns are relatively weak; even heavy clothing can render them useless (“Arm Us”). Capt. Phillip Beall, a member of the Allied Pilots Association (APA), proclaims, "Tasers are demonstrably unreliable" (Goo). The conflict regarding which weapons to use aboard aircraft creates an impasse; stun guns are not strong enough to deter terrorists, while conventional ammunition is too dangerous to be used aboard an aircraft.

A recently developed technology known as frangible ammunition could considerably reduce the risk of both a bullet seriously damaging the aircraft, and a passenger being hit by an off-target bullet. Unlike conventional ammunition, frangible bullets do not ricochet, and are noticeably more accurate than regular bullets. These characteristics would drastically reduce the risk of an innocent bystander accidentally being hit by an errant bullet. Sinterfire, the ammunitions’ developer, asserts that frangible bullets also offer the unique characteristic of “the ability to shoot steel targets without damage” (Sinterfire). Although this does not necessarily apply to an aircraft structure, usually made of aluminum, this quality does reduce the risk of a frangible bullet piercing the fuselage, or causing serious damage to the aircraft (Elbert). This unique combination of characteristics demonstrates that a handgun could be threatening to a terrorist and protective of the airplane and its passengers.

Airport security has been and will continue to be intensified, and in turn, it will become increasingly difficult to smuggle a weapon onboard an airplane. The more refined airport screening becomes, the more cunning and deceptive a terrorist must become. An individual who is sophisticated enough to smuggle a weapon aboard an airplane should be met by equally sophisticated security aboard that airplane. In all likelihood, most pilots would prove inadequate to meet such a challenge, whereas the air marshal would be trained for this exact circumstance. As one aviation safety expert asserts, “[air marshals] are highly trained aviation security specialists” (St. John 98). While an armed pilot’s response to terrorism would be reactive, an air marshal’s response would be proactive. Also, air marshals could receive sophisticated training, far beyond that typically received by pilots, to include bomb-detection and defensive bomb-related maneuvers (Wald). Because airline security demands a new degree of sophistication, double-tasking pilots by asking them to fly the airplane and maintain security is inadequate. The implementation of air marshals will be necessary to accomplish security of the highest degree.

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Photo © Matt Stone

An impassable cockpit door and the placement of an air marshal team aboard every flight would meet the public’s demand and the aviation community’s demand for improved safety requirements. Until these measures are implemented, aircraft can only be considered safe if the pilot is armed. Because of these serious implications, the feasibility of the proposed security measures must be considered.
The reinforcement of all cockpit doors aboard aircraft with 20 or more seats began almost immediately after September 11th, and will be completed in 2003 (“Cockpit”). Retrofitted doors will not be as strong as those installed on newly constructed planes, which will be designed specifically to tolerate strong impacts and incorporate the strength of the surrounding structures into their design, along with other new technology such as an internal unlocking device (“Cockpit”). Because newly constructed planes will attend to the cockpit door issue, it is the existing fleet that deserves more attention. The estimated cost of most cockpit retrofits is $15,000 per plane, amounting to a cost to the airlines of over $100 million. Importantly, Congress has already allocated $100 million specifically for cockpit door improvement (“Cockpit”). Thus, some appropriate steps have already been taken to redesign the cockpit doors on new aircraft and to reinforce those in the existing fleet. Until every plane in the existing fleet has a reinforced cockpit door, it is necessary for pilots to be able to offer fierce resistance from the cockpit; they must be issued firearms.

Assigning an air marshal team to every domestic flight will be much more difficult to accomplish. On an average day, 50,000 flights travel over the continental United States (“Airport Delay”). To reduce the manpower demands, an air marshal might be expected to accompany two flights daily. Although many of those flights involve small aircraft and do not require air marshals, the TSA would still require upwards of 35,000 new employees to accommodate every domestic flight (“Invitation”). The TSA recently requested the authorization to employ a total of 67,000 people, yet Congress has approved only 45,000. Unfortunately, most of these individuals were sought for employment as airport security personnel, not as air marshals (Benson). It will take a substantial length time to acquire and finance the manpower to assign multiple air marshals to every domestic flight. One aviation analyst warns, “we probably will never have enough resources to put a marshal on every flight” (“Armed Pilots,” 65). Issac Yeffet, formerly the director of security at El Al Airlines, states that it is important to proceed, regardless of the cost, because “security pays for itself in decreased insurance fees and increased ridership” (St. John 177). Until such time as two air marshals can be assigned to every domestic flight, a lethal defense against terrorism is the only practical means of security for airline pilots.

The events of September 11th have forced the aviation industry to view every airplane as a potential weapon of destruction. These terrorist attacks have also forced the U.S. government to meet the enormous challenge of preventing another such attack. To accomplish this, security improvements involve stricter airport screening, heightened cockpit defense, and the presence of a lethal defensive force onboard all aircraft. The preventive elements of airport and cockpit security have already begun to be implemented, and by their very nature, they must constantly change and adapt to new scenarios. The placement of lethal weapons aboard aircraft is the only way to provide aircrews the capability of personally overcoming terrorist action. The debate regarding the arming of airline pilots has attracted attention and raised the fundamental political issues of gun control and public safety. Arming pilots with lethal weapons should not be necessary aboard an aircraft with a reinforced cockpit door and an air marshal team. However, such safety measures cannot be provided immediately for all aircraft. In these cases, to quote an American Airlines pilot, “My life and my passengers’ lives are dependent on my having the tools to protect them from any danger that arises during a flight. If that threat is a terrorist, I need a firearm” (Irvine B8). Immediately arming pilots is the only practical short-term solution that ensures that a serious counter-terrorist force will be present on all domestic aircraft that do not have a secured cockpit door and an air marshal team in place.

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Photo © Carlos Borda


Works Cited

“Air Guns; It Is Air Marshals Who Should be Armed; Congress Must Ensure There Are Enough of Them.” Newsday 25 May 2002: A18.

“Airport Delay Reports from FAA.” US Gov. Info/Resources 31 May 2000. 19 June 2002 LINK.

“Armed Pilots Would Supplement Security.” Aviation Week & Space Technology 22. October 2001: 86, 65.

Associated Press. “Administration Rejects Arming Pilots.” Newsday 22 May 2002, Queens Ed.: A05.

---. “Emotions Heat up as Lawmakers, Pilots Debate Guns in Cockpit.” AZCentral.com 2 May 2002. 4 June 2002 LINK.

Benson, Miles. “Experts Cite Doubts Over Air Marshal Plan.” The Houston Chronicle 2 June 2002, 4 Star ed.: A21.

“Cockpit Security – Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) – FAA Strengthens Cockpit Security.” Webdesk.com 11 January 2002. 11 June 2002 LINK.

Elbert, Nathan. Email to the author. 15 Nov. 2003.

Emling, Shelley. “Ground Zero: The Solemn Salute.” The Plain Dealer 31 May 2002: A1+.

Goo, Sara Kehaulani. “20,000 Pilots Petition Hill to Allow Guns in Cockpit.” Washingtonpost.com 3 May 2002, final ed.: A01.

Gunts, Edward. “Designers Sought for Pentagon Memorial; Many Marylanders are Expected to Contribute Ideas.” The Baltimore Sun 11 June 2002, Final ed.: 1E.

Irvine, James M. “Pilots Need Guns for Protection.” The Plain Dealer 2 July 2002: B8.

Lehrer, Eli. “Armed Pilots.” National Review Online. 22 May 2002. 5 June 2002 LINK.

Levy, Robert A. “Invitation to Terror.” National Review Online. 12 October 2001. 5 June 2002 LINK.

Nader, Ralph, and Wesley J. Smith. Collision Course. The Truth About Airline Safety. Blue Ridge Summit: TAB Books, 1994. 71-73.

St. John, Peter. Air Piracy, Airport Security, & International Terrorism. New York: Quorum Books, 1991.

Scott, William B. “Airline Pilots: ‘Arm Us and They Will Come.’” Aviation Week & Space Technology 12 November 2001: 47-48.

---. “Battle Lines Drawn Over Arming Airline Pilots.” Aviation Week & Space Technology 19 February 2002: 45-46.

Sinterfire Home Page. 2001. Sinterfire Inc. 18 June 2002 LINK.

Wald, Matthew L. “Traces of Terror: Airline Security.” The New York Times 25 May 2002, Final ed.: A10.

Written by
Ethan Rider

Ethan Rider is an aviation enthusiast and writer. He specializes in writing about incidents where facts were obscured, incorrect, or omitted entirely. He also writes about incidents where very little information at all has come forward. He began his jouranlism education in his home town, Cleveland, Ohio and now lives in Oakland, California.

4 User Comments:
Username: Fester [User Info]
Posted 2003-11-24 10:05:37 and read 32768 times.

Ethan Rider writes, "A common, yet incorrect interpretation of this principle is that airline pilots are responsible for the safety of their cargo and crew". By crew, I believe that he means passengers.

As an airline pilot, I take great offense to the above statement. My company's manuals (as do the manual's of all other airlines, I am certain) clearly explain: DURING AN EMERGENCY, THE PRIMARY OBJECTIVE IS TO SAFEGUARD PASSENGERS AND CREW. THE SECONDARY OBJECTIVE IS TO PRESERVE THE AIRPLANE AND CARGO. I think that shows that my responsibility as an airline pilot IS to the safety of the cargo and crew/passengers. Having it in writing effectively makes it a Federal Regulation for me.

Do not pidgeon-hole airline pilots as "take-off and landing" specialists. That is an unfair over-simplification of my job.

Further, Ethan Rider states: "Pilots . . . are not necessarily responsible for law enforcement". This is true but again, an over-simplification of the gun-in-the-cockpit issue. If someone is threatening the life of my crew & passengers during a flight, I am not interested in pulling out my gun for "enforcement of the law". I am going to kill that person (or TASER him) in the name of my, and my passengers' safety. The pilots, as the only two people onboard that aircraft that can fly and therefore land it, truely are the last line of defense for it's passengers - that is why they received special attention from the 9/11 hijackings. Hijackers need only to kill the pilots in order to "kill" the passengers . . . that makes us the primary target. Pilots need a defense against that threat in case all else fails.

I have no desire what-so-ever to engage in "law enforcement" type duties, nor do I wish to have any special powers outside of the cockpit. Self defense should not be confused with law enforcement!

Very straight forward rules & regulations can be set in place to establish a pilot's authority to use a gun (or TASER) in the interests of safety. No law enforcement duties need be included. I am not out to write citations or handcuff people - I am only interested in arming myself for my safety & that of my passengers.

I hope Mr. Rider will refrain from making these two mistakes in any future comments about the issue of "guns in the cockpit".

Patrick C.
CRJ Captain

Username: TWISTEDWHISPER [User Info]
Posted 2003-12-12 18:03:00 and read 32768 times.

First of all: A very good article by Mr. Rider. I think that this is perhaps the most difficult question in modern day aviation, where there are basically three camps:
1. Those who are in favor of armed pilots
2. Those who are in favor of air marshals
3. Those who believe that guns do not belong on an aircraft be it in the hand of law enforcers, pilots or terrorists.

I'm afraid that I have to join the third group.

As a passenger I would feel very uncomfortable knowing that just a few feet away there was a tool that potentially could compromise the integrity of the construction I am in at 10-15.000 feet, maybe more.

It's not that I don't trust pilots with guns, or even a police officer with one, however, if the person holding this lethal weapon just happens to miss (the chance that the bullet miss is greater than the chance that it hits) it could possible have a greater impact on the innocent bystanders, then if this was a firefight at a street.


I can just imagine that an armed pilot situation would be a dream scenario for a terrorist, all of the sudden he doesn't even have to smuggle onboard a weapon of any kind, it would already be there... When it comes to responsibility, and means to ensure his own, his crew and the passengers security onboard the aircraft he should have the same rights and tools to do this as a bus driver: Stay sober and convey your craft sensible.

And what about air marshals? Nah… Once again, that would be a terrorist dream scenario; “There is a gun here somewhere, I just have to find it. And since we all are going to die I will tear apart this can of coca-cola and start slashing the throats of my hostage until the air marshal announces himself or makes a move. There will be one air marshal against my terrorist pals and me… Once we’ve found him we have a gun!”

Now, I don't know how crucial it is for the pilot to have access to the passenger cabin area, but one alternative could be to start producing airplanes with no entrance to the cockpit at all, that way the terrorist knows that there is no way that they can get into the cockpit (other than climbing out through the emergency exit, and knocking on the pilot entry door, and hoping that they will fall for it and open).

I think that Americans and Europeans have different views on this subject, primary because of cultural backgrounds, and it might be argued back and forth on what it's the best and it's my believe that if we allow guns on airplane in general, and in cockpit in particular we will see a climbing rate of hijackings ending with casualties and/or serious damage on aircraft and ground structures (roads, residents and other buildings), I have no statistics to back me up though… but I guess we’ll see what happens.

Username: CRJ'sRule [User Info]
Posted 2004-01-20 00:20:02 and read 32768 times.

Ethan,
Thank you for using El Al's security procedures as an example of how to make our airlines safer. The staff and security there are among the best in the world and they can do this without arming it's pilots with guns or enforcing strip searches on 80 year old men. Considering that the United States is the largest giver of foreign aid to Israel, I simply do not understand why they do not work with Israel to improve their security system. I could use this oppurtunity to enforce some negative stereotypes about corporate cronyism in the US, but as I have no evidence on that matter, I'll leave it alone.

CRJ'sRule

Username: 747-600X [User Info]
Posted 2004-04-24 01:35:42 and read 32768 times.

from:
David Mackett
President, Airline Pilots Security Alliance

Ultimately, Ethan's argument is that until airport and airline security is improved so as to be an impervious defense/deterrent to airliner terrorism, pilots should be armed, despite the fact he believes there are manifest risks and questionable value against other security measures, and that a force of air marshals on every aircraft and reinforced doors will ultimately prevail to make an armed pilot unnecessary. Ethan writes,

"...Irrespective of its popularity, this option [arming pilots] is excessive because it only considers an immediate solution. In the long term, the substantial reinforcement of cockpit doors and a mandate that they remain closed during flight, in conjunction with the presence of armed air marshals aboard every flight, should sufficiently meet the increased safety demands. Unfortunately, the implementation of these solutions will take many months, if not years..."

I would not have chosen the word "excessive" in describing any response to 9/11. More than 3000 people died on 9/11, our two proudest buildings were destroyed forever, our stock market collapsed, the airline industry was decimated. The attacks were the catalyst for an economic downturn in which 3.5 million people lost their jobs. New laws have been passed restricting civil liberties in the name of counterterrorism. I'm not sure what response could be "excessive" in the face of all that - particularly, since the next attack could be much, much worse.

While armed pilots certainly are an "immediate solution," as the tens of thousands interested in volunteering could be trained in about a year if the program were changed to use standard law enforcement deployment procedures, they are also a permanent solution, much like armed guards that protect armored cars (only the cargo is much more precious). Other security measures aren't "years away" they are "forever away." There is no currently viable protective technology that is not defeatable, either on the ground or in the air.

After September 11, we spent $7 billion upgrading airport security. We hired 57,000 screeners, installed better metal detectors and explosives machines. But, despite all the boxes of confiscated sewing needles and pocketknives TSA happily showed off, the fact remained that a motivated actor would have little difficulty passing weapons through security. If the hundreds of airport evacuations (each one a tacit admission a weapon may have gotten through) didn't prove this, a 20-year-old college kid did, last fall, when he passed multiple weapons multiple times through screening, to plant them on five different Southwest Airlines aircraft.

Richard Reid, the AA shoe bomber, walked through screening with explosives in his shoe on day one, was removed from the flight and questioned for hours, then went home and returned the next day, again getting his shoes through screening. The shoe bomb was never discovered. The only reason his bomb did not go off was because it got wet in the rain as he walked home the first day he was rebuffed. These violations weren't only possible - they were easy. While arming pilots would not have stopped Richard Reid, a single plane blowing up also would not have been another 9/11 - it would have been a Lockerbie. The point is, contraband continues to get through security when carried by motivated actors and it always will.

Security will never be foolproof. If it was, why did the government feel the need to cancel flights over the holidays? Why do they insist on armed officers on incoming foreign aircraft? Why not trust the security system? The answer, of course, is because they know they can't.

Passenger screening is only part of the problem. Every day hundreds of minimum wage ground employees legally bypass screening on the strength of a background check most of the 9/11 terrorists would have passed. Major airports are virtual cities unto themselves, where catering trucks, construction crews and service vehicles enter by the dozens. There's no way to inspect them all.
Mr. Ryder writes,

"...[arming pilots] is founded on the belief that guns in the cockpit would have prevented the September 11th hijackings. Although this might be true, it is not sufficient justification for the long term arming of pilots..."

Say again? Ryder says,

"...The primary responsibility of airline pilots is to safely operate, control, and land aircraft. A common, yet incorrect interpretation of this principle is that airline pilots are responsible for the safety of their cargo and crew. By properly operating the airplane, pilots are indirectly responsible for safety, but they are not necessarily responsible for law enforcement..."

First, this is incorrect. FAR Part 91.3 makes pilots the final authority as to the safe operation of an aircraft because it recognizes exactly this responsibility. In addition, there are numerous precedents in case law, from passengers injured while the seat belt sign was turned off, to a pilot's flying through prohibitive weather, that have directly held the pilot responsible for the safety of his passenger complement. Arming pilots is also not law enforcement in the traditional sense, it is self-defense, and that is why Federal Flight Deck Officers have no formal arrest authority. They have authority only to use necessary force for protection. They receive no training in the enforcement of legal statute, nor are they authorized there.

But, the real point here is that Mr. Ryder's logic suggests that pilots should be armed only if it is their "primary responsibility" to protect their passengers. By Ryder's logic, we should remove fire extinguishers from airplanes, since firefighting is not a pilot's primary job. No matter that no one else is available to do it and the alternative is an airplane burning up in the sky. Of course, we don't remove the fire extinguishers; there are between 3 and 15 on every aircraft. How can one argue the FAA mandate that pilots be trained and equipped to fight fires onboard, yet NOT trained and equipped to fight terrorists?!

"...El Al Airline effectively responded to numerous hijackings in the late 1960s without arming its pilots. As aviation security expert Peter St. John observes, "the Israelis improved their security measures on all El Al aircraft, including locked, bullet-proofed doors and armed sky marshals..."


Not quite! It was the threat of hijackings that made El Al the first airline to require ALL its pilots to be armed. The airline also used additional measures such as armed guards and double doors. Remember though, in 1961, El Al carried 56,000 passengers a year and had a fleet of a few dozen airplanes. The US fleet will carry 750 million passengers next year and flies some 6000 aircraft! The cost of implementing El Al security measures here is completely prohibitive. For example, to put two air marshals on every US airplane would require an air marshal force the size of the US Marine Corps and would cost $13 Billion dollars every year. It is not a viable solution, and is never going to happen.


"...Consequently, instead of arming pilots, alternative security measures that have been proven to deter terrorists would more effectively address the immediate need to increase aviation safety in response to September 11th, and more directly address the long-term goal of preventing all domestic terrorist action..."


Again, double doors will take years to install and will cost hundreds of millions of dollars the industry cannot afford. They do not address the immediate need for increased security at all and double, even triple doors can be penetrated, given enough time. An airliner over the Pacific is hours from an emergency landing.


"...Furthermore, the pilot's main responsibility, which is closely associated with passenger security, should be protected at all costs, and should not be augmented..."


This flies in the face of Ryder's earlier argument that passenger security is not the pilot's responsibility. Moreover, Mr. Ryder, strapping a gun onto a pilot's hip does not "augment his responsibility" any more than arming that armored car's driver makes it more onerous to pick up his money bags. The program contemplates the pilot will only use the gun when the cockpit has been breached and the only alternative is certain death. He will not go back into the cabin to deal with a terrorist or any other issue. The gun simply offers the pilot the opportunity to continue to carry out his primary responsibility - as it is difficult to land with his throat slit.


"...Nevertheless, the presence of a gun in the cockpit may compromise rather than enhance security. For the same reason that a gun-owning household is more likely to experience an accidental shooting, so may an otherwise secure aircraft experience the use of unnecessary force..."


This is incredibly specious reasoning! First, the "presence" of a gun does not cause accidents, its misuse does. Homeowners are usually not trained to properly handle guns and home shootings occur almost exclusively when the gun is unattended by its owner. Pilots are trained by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and control their weapons at all times in the cockpit. Secondly, home accidental shootings take place largely among children who gain access to a weapon and also due to suicides.

A much better paradigm would be the propensity of a gun on a police officer's hip while he is driving his patrol car to "compromise rather than enhance security." I doubt most cops would accept being disarmed under this logic (though thousands of people would not die if one could not defend himself).


"...Ironically, prior to 1987, pilots were permitted to arm themselves during flight. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) abolished that privilege after an armed pilot, recently fired from his position with Pacific Southwest Airlines, murdered a passenger and the two pilots, and brought down the airplane. All 43 persons aboard were killed (Nader 71-73)...


Unfortunately, Mr. Ryder has his facts wrong again. The Pacific Southwest Airlines incident Ryder refers to, which did occur in 1987 and caused 43 deaths, involved an disgruntled ground employee, David Burke, who smuggled a gun onboard -- not a pilot. Obviously, a weapon would be superfluous to a hostile pilot, since he already has the controls to an aircraft.

Quite possibly, if the pilots of that PSA flight had been armed to defend themselves, that crash too, might have been prevented. But, as Mr. Ryder relates above, in his opinion, that would not have justified the long term arming of pilots.

Pilots routinely armed themselves in flight in the fifties and sixties as required to protect the mail. There were never any accidents, just like there have never been any accidents among the thousands of military pilots who routinely carry side arms on military flights.

In fact, the single use of a gun on the flight deck by a civilian airline pilot, occurred shortly before noon on July 6, 1954, when a mentally disturbed teen-ager armed with a pistol commandeered an American Airlines DC-6 at the Cleveland Airport, only to be shot and fatally wounded by the armed captain. The shooting ended the life of Raymond Kuchenmeister, and made a reluctant hero of the late Capt. William "Bill" Bonnell of Fort Worth. Think about that: The only historical experience for the presence of a gun on the flight deck, demonstrates that there has never been a safety problem, and also demonstrate a gun has prevented an air disaster.

"...Even if pilots were able to use guns appropriately, the mere presence of a gun in the cockpit might still hinder security. As long as there is already a gun onboard, there remains hope for an unarmed terrorist. As Storomza Tsahi, director of security for the inimitably safe El-Al Airlines of Israel states, "If [pilots] have guns, then the hijackers know where they can get them" (Lehrer)..."

I would agree, except that since security is still quite porous, it makes no sense a terrorist would rely on the odds a pilot will have a weapon to arm himself with in completing an operation planned for months. The terrorist will bring his own gun. Second, once the cockpit has been breached, the terrorist doesn't need to be armed. Everyone will be dead anyway as if a fight occurs in the cockpit, the plane will crash, a la Shanksville, PA.


Ryder says, "...an organized team of air marshals would be a more effective security measure than an armed pilot, not only in regard to the security of the aircraft, but also in regard to the intimidation of terrorists..."


I completely agree. If Mr. Ryder will only find $13 billion dollars per year to fund such a program, I would support it. But, it's not an 'either/or.' A layer of air marshals AND a layer of armed pilots would be the most effective deterrent. Also, many of the arguments Ryder cites as to the danger of "the presence of a gun on an airplane" remain whether the gun is carried by an air marshal or an armed pilot. You can't have it both ways.


"...Ronald Hinderberger, safety director at Boeing, admits, "There is a remote possibility of causing a fire, explosion, engine failure, or loss of critical systems, given an unfortunate placement of shots and combination of conditions" ("Emotions")..."

Yes, there's also a remote possibility of an engine exploding, a mid air collision, or hitting a mountain. But, if the gun is only used when the cockpit is breached and certain death is the only alternative, isn't it worth the "remote" risk?


"...An individual who is sophisticated enough to smuggle a weapon aboard an airplane should be met by equally sophisticated security aboard that airplane. In all likelihood, most pilots would prove inadequate to meet such a challenge, whereas the air marshal would be trained for this exact circumstance. As one aviation safety expert asserts, "[air marshals] are highly trained aviation security specialists" (St. John 98). While an armed pilot's response to terrorism would be reactive, an air marshal's response would be proactive..."


Actually, both responses are reactive. The terrorist makes himself known, air marshals react, just like pilots. Further, Federal Flight Deck Officers undergo more firearms training than most police officers (they just don't stay on for traffic law classes). I'm uncertain why Ryder feels they would "prove inadequate to meet such a challenge." Wouldn't that depend on their level of training? Oh, and by the way, one of those "highly trained aviation security specialists" left her gun on the shelf in an airport bathroom last week :-). Finally,


"...Arming pilots with lethal weapons should not be necessary aboard an aircraft with a reinforced cockpit door and an air marshal team..."

I can only answer Mr. Ryder: I personally fly an airplane with a reinforced door. We open it all the time for routine business, to get meals, to use the lavatory, etc. And we always will. Further, that door was breached by a drunk on a United flight soon after 9/11, and a cleaning crew who drove a food cart right through one several months later.
Once in a while, I even have a team of air marshals come along. But not often. There's not enough money to fund them and they're leaving the job at an alarming pace (who wants to sit around and eat bad food at 30,000 feet all day?!).
Mr. Ryder, if tomorrow, Al Qaeda targeted four or five airliners exactly like they did September 11th, 2001, odds are, four of the five would get through if the intelligence community didn't prevent the attack. They would get weapons through security as a college kid did, they would breach the reinforced door as that cleaning crew did, there would be no air marshals around, and once on the other side of the door, the passengers would not have time to help the pilots. The attack would succeed, or, given a lot of luck, the Air Force would shoot down the airliner, killing all aboard.
Given all that - sitting as a passenger in THAT AIRPLANE -- wouldn't you want your pilot to be armed?

David Mackett
President, Airline Pilots Security Alliance
www.secure-skies.org

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